What are mental illnesses? Are they as severe as physical illnesses?

Mental illnesses affect one’s mood, thinking and behavior. There are similarities as well as differences between physical and mental illnesses. In a physical illness, the manifestations are easily seen and measured. In mental illnesses, they are not as easily observed and measured. However, one major similarity is that both these types of illnesses affect an individual’s capacity to function normally. Both these types of illnesses need to be treated by qualified doctors/professionals.

What are examples of different types of mental illnesses?

Depression, Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Schizophrenia are a few examples of mental illnesses. There are many more.

What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

Psychiatry is a medical specialty that deals with the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. In order to be a psychiatrist, one needs a basic degree in medicine (MBBS). A psychologist studies human development, behavior and mental illnesses and can provide other forms of intervention to a person suffering from mental illnesses such as therapy. A psychiatrist is qualified to prescribe medications to persons with mental illnesses, but a psychologist is not. To make it more clear, a psychologist is to psychiatry what a physiotherapist is to orthopedics.

So if I think I or someone known to me has a mental illness, whom should I consult first?

You can go to either a psychiatrist or a psychologist. Usually, if the behavior of the affected person is not manageable at home, it is better to go to a psychiatrist first. A psychiatrist will help stabilize the affected person’s symptoms by starting medications. The psychiatrist may also ask the patient and/or their family members to consult a psychologist for therapy or for knowing more about the illness. Alternatively, if you consult a psychologist first, they may refer you to a psychiatrist for medication depending upon the severity of the disorder.

Are medications absolutely necessary to treat psychiatric disorders?

Whether medications are required or not depends upon the nature of the disorder and its severity. For example, in severe illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorder, medications are necessary. Without medications, the affected person’s behavior and functionality would be severely affected. But for illnesses such as depression, it depends upon the severity of the illness. If it is mild depression, it may be successfully treated with therapy alone. However, for persons with severe depression, medications become essential in treatment. Whether or not medications are required is decided by a psychiatrist in collaboration with the patient and caregivers.

Are medications really important to treat mental illnesses? I mean, how can a pill make my mood better? Isn’t mood a reflection of my environment?

Well, like it has been discussed earlier, the need for medications is decided by the type as well as severity of the illness. Having said that, it is important to understand why medications help. Biological psychiatry has made major advances in the last century and it is now an established fact that how a person feels is not only governed by environment, but also by certain neurotransmitters (chemicals) in the human brain. Some people’s brain produces the required amount of chemicals to keep their mood and behavior stable. Other people’s brain struggles and either produces too little or too much of a given chemical which causes an imbalance and impacts their mood and behavior. Medications are meant to correct that chemical imbalance and help restore the balance. However, the environment also plays an important role in this. The healthier a person’s environment, the better the response a person shows to treatment. Which is also why in addition to medication, it is important to lead a healthy lifestyle by eating right, sleeping well and exercising regularly.

Is it true that medications have to be taken lifelong to treat mental illnesses?

This again depends on the nature of the illness. In illnesses such as schizophrenia, the affected person does need to be on medication for life. With less severe illnesses, the person may be able to stop medication after a while, but only when the psychiatrist decides and under his/her supervision. But this is not uncommon even in certain physical ailments. For example, in illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension, medication is continuous and lifelong.

What causes a mental illness?

There isn’t a single cause for any mental illness. The main contributors are:

  • Genetic predisposition: A person is said to be genetically predisposed to a mental illness when one or more of his immediate family members has a mental illness.
  • Biological causes: These include the inability of the brain to produce neurotransmitters in the required quantity.
  • Environmental factors: Any traumatic event, sudden change in one’s environment which one is unable to deal with etc. can lead to an episode of a mental illness.

Mental illnesses are a result of the complex interaction of two or more of the above factors. No single cause is completely responsible for the occurrence of a mental illness.

If one of my parents has a mental illness, will I also definitely become a victim of it?

No. Just because one of your immediate family members has a mental illness, it doesn’t mean that you too will have it. It is like any other disorder such as diabetes. Your chances of having a mental illness would be slightly higher than the chances of those who do not have a single parent with any mental illness, but it certainly doesn’t mean that you will definitely have it.

Are there ways in which I can take care of my mental health even though I do not have an illness now?

Of course, there are! There are many ways to take care of one’s mental health. The main thing is to deal with stress in a positive manner. In order to know how to handle stress, please click here.


Our goals are:

Community awareness

  • School awareness programs – trained mental health workers will conduct awareness sessions at schools and colleges to improve the awareness among youth
  • Media (both print and electronic) outreach – information handouts, interviews of experts, blogs of survivors, experience of family members will be published in print and electronic media

These awareness campaigns are aimed at informing about mental health problems in youth, specifically those of depression, suicidality and substance abuse.

Life skills training to youth

WHO has defined life skills as “the abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life”.

We plan to conduct life skills training programs for youth as well as teachers and parents for the purpose of wider dissemination.

Training Gate keepers

  • School counselors/ teachers/ peers have the potential to serve as gate keepers to identify those at risk of suicide. We intend to conduct workshops for those of them interested in this program to train them to be gatekeepers. In addition, schools and colleges shall be encouraged to designate gatekeepers to identify youngsters at risk for suicide.

Training General practitioners

Considering the shortage of psychiatrists in the country, general practitioners will be trained to pick up common symptoms and signs of depression, anxiety and substance use. They will also be trained in assessment of suicidality and sensitized about the first line of intervention.


Our goals are:

Research and policy making

In the future, we intend to study the implementation and success of our strategies which we hope shall provide vital information about what really works in helping the youth with their mental health and preventing suicide, so that the program can be improved upon and be implemented more widely.